An already common theme on this trip is my absolute lack of research, leading to my expectations being way off track. I expected Valparaiso (also known as Valpo) to be a sleepy port town, which was disproven before I’d even set foot off the bus.
After wading through a chaotic station and heaving local market, it’s time to catch a trolley bus into the town centre. These have been running since 1952 and they’ve not changed one bit. I think that even stretches to having the same driver since then whose license (featuring a black and white photo with a full head of hair and a lot less wrinkles) is proudly displayed above the rickety dashboard.
The customary directionless amble to the hostel has already made one thing clear: the steep hills which Valpo is famous for are not my friend. The locals say that they’re made of different stuff, that they have stronger knees to cope with it, and it’s hard to disagree. The upside is that these winding hills lead to open panoramic views at every turn. The more you look around you, the more confusing it is – the city seems to somehow stack its buildings on top of each other, interconnected by stairways and balconies, reminiscent of an MC Escher painting.
After an embarrassingly exhausting 10 minute walk, refuelling is needed. This comes in the shape of an empanada, a deep fried pastry common across South America, typically stuffed with some form of meat. A simple concept, but when done well it’s up there with your favourite comfort food (cheesy pasta of course). These delicious little meals are so common in fact, that I was almost tempted to make this website exclusively an empanada review blog across the continent. Is there much of a market for pastry influencers?
Apart from its hills, Valparaiso is famous for its vibrant colours and inescapable street art. It’s bright, attention grabbing, and often extremely well illustrated. It almost seems like an unwritten rule that if it doesn’t move, it’s getting tagged, whether it’s homes, shops, restaurants, or even just a car whose owner lost their keys many years ago.
Once you make your way out of the more touristy areas, things quickly change. The colours become duller, and the impressive artwork is replaced by hastily sprayed, spikey political messages, calling back to the troubled previous decades across the country. As distant as it may seem during everyday life, signs of Chile’s past are never far away. Valparaiso’s old prison is still standing, and after being abandoned by the government in 1999, it was then reclaimed by the local community and now makes up part of the city’s culture and arts space. During Pinochet’s rule the prison was extremely violent and overcrowded, and it now tells the particular story of one political prisoner, who was brutally attacked from behind, and was never seen again after leaving on a stretcher. Cases like this were common (official figures state around 30,000 people were tortured), and it’s hard to believe that this widespread civil unrest and violence was taking place until just 30 years ago.
Valpo has something different around every corner, and the next corner couldn’t be further from the somber events of the prison. It’s 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and the local town square is buzzing. After asking around, we learn that there’s a performance starting soon. And not just any performance, a mime. And not just any mime – it’s Tuga, who I’m told is so good, he’s even performed in France! You don’t need to be a mime lover to know that’s as big as it gets. After strong encouragement from the locals to stay and watch, we squeeze into the crowd and wait for the road to get closed off, and for Tuga to appear. Except it doesn’t, and Tuga flies out of nowhere on a 4 metre high unicycle, careering around the crossroads as traffic flies past in every direction.
This was just the warm up, other highlights included:
- Climbing onto the roof of passing buses
- Stealing people’s phones, taking quick selfies, and then throwing them across the street to his colleague as the crowd gasps in shock
- A game of tennis in the middle of the road as traffic whizzes by
The crowd goes wild throughout. Even the cars passing by stop in the middle of the road to throw £5 notes in Tuga’s direction.
As great as his performance is, it’s just refreshing to be away from the swathes of Instagram-hungry tourists on the hills, and amongst the locals, enjoying their summer holidays. The square is full of life all evening, from kids racing around on their scooters and impromptu dance performances, to this old couple still loving each other’s company after 60 years together.
Valparaiso: yeah, the street art and views are cool, but just make sure Tuga’s performing when you’re planning to visit.